Feminism and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

In response to a note by bluewavedruid, which you can read here:

which was a response to a note of mine, which you can read here:

I present a further response.

Blue: Your economic interpretation of the case of why young girls will eschew feminist values and deliberately conform to patriarchal values is interesting indeed. I like it. I wonder if there is something equally economic, and just as much a problem, operating in the male mind. For on that economic way of thinking, in which everyone is seeking to maximise their prospects for self-preservation, men presumably find that women are a resource too. A man needs a handsome woman on his arm in order to get the good jobs, the admiration of other men, the sex, the household services, the male child who will carry on the name, and so on.

For instance, a certain number of my male students, in every class I teach, say that the reason they want children some day is because kids can provide a kind of surrogate immortality. They will carry his name and his genetic heritage into the future. He needs a woman in his life for that – and, presumably, a woman who will not object to this kind of reasoning.

Knowing this, the male does the things which he thinks will attract the kind of woman who would be able to supply these things in a satisfactory way. Yet he also knows that there are millions of other men competing with him for the same ‘resource’. So he must also do the things which he thinks will fend off the other men. And he also knows, or thinks he knows, that what women are looking for in a man is someone who, as Blue put it, will “take care of her, provide for her, and physically protect her”. So he has to demonstrate that he can be that kind of man.

Qualities of humanity, such as compassion, empathy, prudence, and even to some extent self-possession and self-awareness, are ruled out by this strategy. The men think that women don’t want a sappy, emotionally aware, touchy-feely kind of guy, because they think that such an emotionally aware man would not be an effective provider and protector.

Qualities of reason and rationality are also ruled out. The men think that women don’t want a guy who is thoughtful, knowledgeable, well-read, world-wise, imaginative or artistically creative, spiritual, or intellectually curious. Again, such a guy is less likely to be an effective material provider and protector. Only once in a rare while does a mild-mannered bookish male become an alpha-male by reason of his intellectual powers alone. Arthur Miller attracted Marilyn Monroe that way – but that’s the only example I can think of right now.

The qualities that will help the man get the girl are the qualities of animal competitiveness, such as aggression, territoriality, bullishness, self-centredness, dominance, pride, spite, and possessiveness. These are the ways he can demonstrate to prospective women (of the sort Blue described) that he is a better material provider and protector than other men. Our economy is arranged in such a way that those competitive qualities are positively rewarded: competitive men get more money, prestige, attention, and power. And they are better able to attract the girls who want a protecter / provider.

Yet this also creates a generation of alpha-males who don’t know how to relate to women properly. Nor are these men able to relate to each other very well. The qualities of animal competitiveness excaberates sources of conflict and tension. It leaves people feeling paranoid and always on alert. And then it leaves men wondering why “their” women leave them after a few years.

And leave them the women often do. For the women who think that they want a provider / protector also want to be respected for themselves: they want their personhood acknowledged, their thoughts and feelings valued. Certain non-economic desires and needs always sneak their way in to people’s minds, after all. This is true even of girls who, in the effort to attract a protector / provider male, conform themselves to patriarchal values, as Blue suggests they may do.

The result is this: the girls who try and attract and keep the male by means of presenting themselves as flag-bearers of patriarchal values end up attracting the kind of male who is intellectually and emotionally unable to acknowledge a woman’s personhood or respect her thoughts and feelings. After all, the qualities of male animal-competition render the male unable to acknowledge even his own feelings, let alone those of “his” women. So, the women find themselves having to decide whether they can put up with the situation in order to keep their protector / provider, or whether they can “trade up” and find a better protector / provider who can respect them too. Or, they may decide to go it alone. And take their kids with them. And, on the recommendation of their divorce lawyer, take a big slice of his income too. After all, on this economic strategy for self-preservation, it pays women to be animal-competitors too.

This is what philosophers sometimes call a Hobbsean Trap, or a Prisoner’s Dilemma. This is what happens when people in some situation, who are not communicating with each other properly, all pursue what they think is in their own best interest vis-a-vis the other. Yet they end up with a situation which is bad for everyone, or which leaves everyone worse off, or which no one really wanted.

Bren’s Subconscious: Aha! That is the reason why you have no girlfriend, B. You’re not sufficiently aggressive, territorial, and domineering. Women want a warrior, not a nerd. That, and the fact that your Ph.D. hasn’t netted you the job with the six-digit income.

Most of Bren’s ex-girlfriends: Er – no. We liked Bren because he had more than half a brain in his head.

Bren: And I’m thankful for that.

There are a few women in the world who want a man who can think for himself, who respects “his” women, and who isn’t a bully. There are a few men in the world who want to attract an intelligent, self-aware woman who won’t sell out her social values to attract an alpha-male. These people tend to emerge when someone bravely refuses to abide by the self-refuting rules of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Hmmm. I think I see a chapter in my next book being written right in front of me. I better go and get writing.

My thanks to Bluewave for starting this conversation.

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11 Responses to Feminism and the Prisoner’s Dilemma

  1. Just wanted to share an oddity of the Live Journal Advertisement System, in the Banner Ad that was with this article was for sugardaddie.com…

  2. erynn999 says:

    I’ve always, in men, gone for the brainy geek type. Always. I don’t want to deal with sports fan asshole patriarchal keepin’ the wimminz in the kitchen types. Ever.

  3. hey, don’t blame me. you started it!. Well, you and Kanye West. “cuz, you know, he “aint’ sayin’ she a gold-digger” and all

  4. PS:
    oh, and the brainy geek type (if you like to call it that) is coming up in the world. Don’t believe me… go ask Melinda Gates! 😉

  5. Ok, I’ll respond properly to your response. I agree. You’ve got my point entirely.
    I’ll add to your analysis the following:
    Re the men who show they’re provider/protectors and the women who seek them; I’ve seen this go to extremes. Each has to out-prove to the other. I think this is what leads many men and women to believe that displays of jealousy are a proof of their love/devotion. I had a few BFs in the past who when I didn’t freak out about something took it to mean I didn’t care or love them. I really don’t care if a BF watches porn (unless he refuses to share 😉 but women are SUPPOSED to freak out about that. These are the reasons I’m not a “right” woman, you know.

    Too many people spend too much time worrying about how a man or a woman is “supposed” to behave. Its never a good scene, I tells ya. Its this lack of understanding and accepting people as individuals paired with a dose of biological determinism – women are baby factories that will make you immortal and men are there to pay the bills and protect the home while she’s brewing the next batch of DNA.

    Wow. You know, despite the tone of that, I’m really a happy person.

    • admin says:

      Interesting, isn’t it, how the competitive life doesn’t make people happy. Actually it increases their costs: they have to pay for all those therapy sessions and antidepressants!

      You’re not a “right” woman, eh? Then it doesn’t surprise me that you’re happier. In fact I think you’re brilliant. Wish you lived local. Or that I lived local to you. *grin*

  6. Anonymous says:

    The trend towards more conservative values in both young men and women could also be an indicator of a resurgence towards a more conservative way of life. One that is defined by established doctrines. If one does the market research, one will see that this country is made up largely of immigrants from countries with more conservative values, usually dictated by religion. As a social unit it can be envisioned that these ideas cannot help but affect the whole.

    Additionally, is not necessary true that nerds and jocks are mutually exclusive. The quality of the man sought depends on the social status of the women. The more emotionally and intellectually primitive the woman, the more rudimentary the qualities she seeks in her mate. One only needs to visit any downtown center to see what I mean. The efficacy of the protective ability of a man, from a woman’s point of view can include, and sometimes is actively sought out by women, the humility and other touchy feely emotions you speak of. In fact the alpha-male can quite often be an intellectual for a woman. Why do you think men with English accents are often revered? Here the accent implies someone of intelligence and worldliness. What better way to provide for a family than to be familiar with the wilds outside?

    There is an idealized tendency in today’s society to shy away from violence. In this venue the booky or nerdy alpha-male excels. Besides, even if violence is required a man doesn’t need to be 6’4” and made of muscle. Humans have built tools. It is by the application and necessary use of these tools that a woman evaluates a potential mate.

    Competitiveness and aggression are qualities that are beneficial if applied correctly. No woman wants to be with a man who picks fights with any other male that looks at her. Yet it is beneficial if a woman can see that the man is able to be useful. This does not necessarily mean a financial provider, but often does. And it is beneficial if he is “man” enough to support his beliefs and his family. No woman wants to be with a man who waffles.

    In the end I am only saying that each of us wears a thin veneer of humility, and how much humility we have depends on the scale we place ourselves. To deny our basic animal natures is absurd. It is perhaps this idea that the youth of today are embracing.

    • skiegazer says:

      I like waffles. And French toast…. with bananas… and walnuts. Mmmm….

      I don’t think anyone is talking about “denying animal instinct” or anything like that. Moving beyond it would be more accurate, or working with it the way an artist works with powerful emotions and visceral sensations in order to create tensions that engage both mind and body on a “higher” level of insight. Strength and conviction can be demonstrated many ways. Being an intelligent, observant woman, I like men who are flexible and always reevaluating themselves, able to respond to the present moment rather than clinging to facts and concepts that may no longer be relevant. “Waffle” is just a derogatory term for flexibility and responsiveness.

      The family no longer needs to conform to a hierarchical, patriarchal construct where the man supports and protects the woman and children. Women are just as fierce in their support and protection, and children become capable very early on of functioning as independent persons who can contribute to the well-being of the family as a whole in social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual ways, indeed in almost every way except financial.

      But then, perhaps my opinion was shaped, like Blue’s, by a family in which my father was receptive, supportive and caring, and my mother was cold, aggressive and inflexible (as well as being the primary “bread winner”). A negative backlash involving a bit of role-reversal, in which the female doesn’t function as an equal but merely assumes the role of “alpha-male” that was unhealthy even when it belonged to men. Having grown up in such a household, at odds with itself as well as with mainstream patriarchy, I seek a more balanced, truly mutual and equal relationship with any future partner I may have. But doesn’t that just go to show that these constructs are cultural, rather than biological, and therefore can be changed?

  7. skiegazer says:

    Jesus the Fetus.

    I’ve only just gotten around to reading these posts… To be honest, I found the original post fascinating, but you guys started to lose me with all the hypothetical economic talk of “resources.” I think, when it comes to abortion in particular, anti-feminist, anti-choice responses have more to do with a person’s perceived relationship to the “potential” child than to how his or her opinions will help attract a mate. That may be completely off base, but it would be interesting to see how your students react to other feminist issues such as gender equality in the workplace, the role of women in politics, same-sex marriage (which I consider a “feminist” issue insofar as feminism insists that gender is not an indicator of value in personhood or relationship), etc.

    I wonder if strong anti-abortion sentiment, especially among younger people, is partly a response to a perceived sense of hopelessness about the future. Why is it so gosh darn important to bring even more people into the world? Why is it that anti-choice arguments say things like, “What if Mary had gotten an abortion?” but never things like, “What if Hitler’s mom had gotten an abortion?” (something that might have made a difference, since I read somewhere that much of Hitler’s power issues may have come from being the ignored youngest child of a ridiculous number of siblings). I think the unspoken belief is that we need new people born into this world who haven’t been “damaged” the way we have, because we are no longer capable of saving ourselves. Hence the “especially vulnerable/innocent” concept always tacked on to the issue of potential personhood. With each new birth comes the potential of a savior, someone who will grow up to have a positive impact on the world. All questions about a woman’s individual right to choose and the importance of choice and free will in general (I dislike the concept of “owning” one’s body, since it relies on language that I find inherently inappropriate anyway) are perceived as only secondary, since the very notion of a woman “getting herself into” an unwanted pregnancy supposedly proves she is as imperfect, damaged and incapable of appropriately directing her life as the rest of us. Maybe her kid will do better.

    At least, I suspect that’s what these young people secretly fear. Or maybe it’s the only possible reason I can think of why someone would be so ignorantly and arrogantly anti-choice and anti-woman.

    • admin says:

      Re: Jesus the Fetus.

      Interesting idea. I suppose that may explain why there is almost always such an emphasis on the “innocence” of the unborn, and why innocence in the young is almost always cited as a quality that renders its possessor worthy and deserving of extraordinary protection.

      I’d be careful not to equivocate on the meaning of the word, though. Innocence can mean a lot of things to different people. Might it mean innocent of sin or of crimes? Might innocence mean a certain kind of ignorance, for instance the innocent person is ignorant of our sexuality, or ignorant of the fact that people are often cruel and hard, or that we all must die?

      But whatever it may mean, the innocent child grows up to be an adult, and then he or she gets interested in sex and drugs and rock n’ roll, and then it’s all over. The hope for a messianic saviour is dashed. Again. Oh but wait – here comes another baby! Maybe this one will be perfect, and will never grow up, and —


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